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Capitol Furniture Types of Beaux-Arts Architect: Design Hierarchy Reveals Meaning



In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, state governments commissioned capitols, libraries, and other public buildings. These monumental buildings were frequently conceptualized and designed by architects trained in the Beaux-Arts tradition, such as George Post (Wisconsin State Capitol), Charles McKim (Boston Public Library), and Richard Hunt (Chicago Administration Building). The architects' training in the French academic system is reflected throughout their planning, exterior structure, and interior. While hierarchies are known in Beaux-Arts buildings and theorized to be related to pre-existing American social or political hierarchies, questions remain when interiors as a specialization has focus. What meanings of the interiors emerge beyond style and function, when taking a French Beaux-Arts academic view? What obscure ranking and ordering classification allowed finishes to be systematically assigned? How did this system relate to style and stature of rooms? What similarities of motifs are present when room and furniture hierarchy are considered? In what manner might an interior design plan of a Beaux-Arts trained architect integrate modern elements of their day forming a genre fitting America? These become essential questions when one's purpose is to understand the rationale underlying the comprehensive interior design plan of an American Beaux-Arts building. Through furniture types—a single design system within the architect's holistic interior plan—one understands the unification and yet discernment of rooms.

Drawing upon a paramount form, designed en suite, this paper analyzes the hierarchy of tables in the Wisconsin State Capitol. Inquiry into a principal design element of the interior finish offers reinterpreted and new meanings for the field's consideration. The study presents findings that applied a postmodern research methodology combining practice, material culture analysis, and historical techniques. Data were derived from (1) direct observation of extant physical objects, (2) photographs from the original era, (3) documents from the architect's firm, and (4) literature pertaining to the topic. Findings clearly demonstrate that George Post integrated a French academic architectural ranking and ordering classification within an American democratic infrastructure. He methodically assigned finishes to departmental offices based on function and stature of governmental performance and organization. Further, the architect communicated intended meanings through a hierarchy of styles, materials, and construction variations. Additionally, he integrated both modern and historic stylistic elements; designing in both genres and applying both types of elements in a consistent pattern. The findings and methods offer ways to accurately portray an evident hierarchy, thus uncovering what might seem obscure when studying and restoring historical buildings or if using traditional document analysis alone. Interpretations offer relationships of room and furniture incorporating stylistic elements (motifs, scale, proportion, color), types of materials, and construction variations for each room category. As a collective whole, room and furniture reinforce monumental meaning to the building. These meanings reinforce the rationale permeated in classicism. Added to the materiality and physicality, we uncover beliefs, values, and cultural preferences of American Beaux-Arts architects in social terms as well.